In Processing, Wine Types and Styles

Winemakers love to gripe that Pinot Noir is the hardest wine to make. I disagree. It is not that it is difficult to make; Pinot Noir is difficult to get right. First, if you are not starting with good grapes you might as well pack it in. Americans don’t like to be told this, but all vineyards are NOT created equal. And great Pinot vineyards are scarce on the ground, at least as much so in America as in Burgundy (where less than 10% of the Pinot Noir acreage is designated grand cru). Second, not all winemakers are temperamentally suited to make Pinot. During the winemaking process, Pinot Noir punishes ego. Winemakers who must put their personal stamp on every wine they make invariably make bad Pinot, because tinkering with the process or “fixing” what appear to some winemakers as “problems” just does not work with this grape.

I’m not saying that I’m some sort of Pinot genius — far from it. In fact I believe there can be no such thing — the best Pinot winemaker I can hope to be is some sort of zen-state idiot savant. By practicing this approach to making Pinot for the last decade-plus, I have come up with a few do’s and don’ts. Do start with a good vineyard. Don’t pick the grapes overripe. Do pick when the seeds are ripe. Do treat the fruit gently. Don’t do the whole berry/carbonic maceration thing (in my view, a method that makes Beaujolais, not Pinot). Do make any additions the fruit needs at the crusher. Do wait for the cap to rise on its own (some winemakers call this a “cold soak”). Don’t ferment uninoculated – there is nothing more certain to destroy Pinot than having to “fix” a stuck fermentation. Don’t pump the wine over the cap. Do punch down. Don’t punch down too much. Do let the wine “rest” for a while after fermentation before pressing. Don’t do extended maceration.

It is this last point that had me in a state of cognitive dissonance during the 2005 harvest. The protocol I have developed over the years is to maintain the wine in fermenter for a total of 14 days of cuvaison. For reasons related to the timing demands of the 2005 harvest, the move to the new winery, and delays in receiving new equipment, all my ’05 Pinot Noir lots spent substantially longer than 14 days in fermenter: 19, 22, 27, 28 and 29 days to be precise. And I was sorely afraid.

BUT – so far this has not proven to be a disaster. The ’05 wines in fact are marvelous. Whether they are marvelous because of — or in spite of — the long maceration times will never be known. I have no plans to deliberately incorporate long maceration into my Pinot protocols. Perhaps some day in the future I will have the resources to do an experiment on the effects of long maceration on Pinot. Until then I plan to do my best to keep maceration times near two weeks. But at least I have learned that I don’t have to stress out over not getting the Pinot pressed off at exactly fourteen days. That, at least, is a bit of a relief.

This post originally appeared on John Kelly’s blog: “notes from the winemaker.” John Kelly is the owner and winemaker of Westwood wines, Sonoma, California.

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